Burial Rites uses fiction to explore the reasons for and events surrounding the real murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson in Iceland in 1828. In doing so, it engages with questions about God, meaning, and the power of truth. Characters in the book frequently discuss whether stories that they hear are “true,” as Iceland is very isolated and has a limited communication network, making news unreliable and rumors omnipresent. For example, Margrét’s neighbors hear rumors of Agnes’s placement in her household before hearing it from Margrét herself, while Tóti hears a rumor that Blöndal was friends with Natan because Natan once healed his sick wife. As a result of these sorts of rumors, characters must constantly investigate and speculate about the “truth” of the stories they hear as they attempt to determine their veracity.
Not only does the truth come up as characters try to separate fact from rumor, but the idea of “truth” is also on the forefront of people’s minds when they try to create and uphold social norms. Tóti talks with Agnes about what it means to be a “true” Christian, Blöndel talks to Tóti about what it means to be a “true” man, Natán is called a “true” farmer’s son, etc. As characters discuss what it means to be a “true” Christian, man, farmer’s son, or whatever else, they enforce norms of social behavior and establish what it means to be a certain kind of person.
Truth also takes on a highly religious significance in Lutheranism, the predominant religion of 19th-century Iceland and a constant presence throughout the book. Tóti’s role as Agnes’s priest is to guide Agnes to goodness and help her see “the way of truth and repentance” after her alleged role in Natan and Pétur’s murders. Truth in Lutheranism is tied to the idea of liberation, as evidenced when Tóti speaks with Agnes and quotes the Bible verse John 8:32, “and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
For Agnes, however, the truth clearly has not engendered any sort of real freedom. Agnes tells her true side of the story of the murders to the judges at her trial, stating that, while she did stab Natan, she only did so to be merciful, because Fridrik had already wounded Natan so badly that there was no way he could survive. However, Agnes’s admission of the truth did nothing to save her from conviction and being sentenced to execution. Agnes is keenly aware of the fact that the truth did not liberate her as promised, and she clearly resents religious views of divine truth. When Tóti begins to quote John 8:32, Agnes interrupts him, saying that he can for himself “see how well that served [her]”, drawing attention to her continued incarceration. Not only does Agnes not have confidence in the liberating possibilities of truth telling, but she even doubts whether truth exists at all, saying at one point that there is “no such thing as truth.”
The truths that Agnes does believe in, however, are not happy or liberating truths, but rather ones that reveal hypocrisy, misogyny, and inequality in their community. Agnes sees the judges and leaders who condemned her as men unable to accept the fact that she is an intelligent woman, and thinks that their refusal to believe her innocence is related to this sexism. Their misogyny, Agnes says, is the real “truth of it.” When Tóti asks Agnes why her mother lied about who her father was, Agnes responds by telling him how she did so because her real father was a married man, and it would harm her mother’s reputation severely to admit to that. Essentially, Agnes shows how “the truth” often is determined by people in power, or manipulated to prevent persecution by these same people.
When Agnes does finally tell the “truth” of her story to Margrét, she is right in thinking that it will not save her, and Agnes is still executed as planned. She does, however, at least form a connection with Margrét before she is killed, giving her an ally and friend before she dies. Perhaps this friendship and Margrét’s empathy towards Agnes could be seen as liberating Agnes in some way.
Throughout the novel, Kent shows how the commonly accepted truth, rather than being objective, is determined by powerful people at the expense of people who are disenfranchised. However, Kent’s choice to rewrite Agnes’s story, which is based on a “true” story in 19th-century Iceland, suggests that the truth as constructed by powerful men can be challenged and reimagined through narrative—though it is almost two hundred years too late to save Agnes.
Truth and Liberation ThemeTracker
Truth and Liberation Quotes in Burial Rites
I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames…fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me…I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?
How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out-of-doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.
To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things…It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten…Who was she really?…she made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.
“No such thing as truth,” Agnes said, standing up. Tóti stood up also…“There is truth in God,” he said, earnestly, recognizing an opportunity to do his spiritual duty. “John, chapter eight, verse thirty-two: ‘And ye…’”
“‘Shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ Yes, I know. I know,” Agnes said. She bundled her knitting things together… “Not in my case, Reverend Thorvardur,” she called to him. “I’ve told the truth and you can see for yourself how it has served me.”
I’ll tell you something, Reverend Tóti. All my life people have thought I was too clever…That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart… to get caught up in this by accident. But Sigga is dumb and pretty and young, and that is why they don’t want to see her die…They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence. And like it or not, Reverend, that is the truth of it.
“What do you do with the kit after you kill its parents?”
“Some hunters leave it there to die. They are no use for market— the skins are too small.”
“What do you do?”
“I stove their heads in with a rock.”
“That is the only decent thing to do.”
“Yes. To leave them is cruelty.”
What else is God good for other than a distraction from the mire we’re all stranded in? We’re all shipwrecked. All beached in a peat bog of poverty. When was the last time I even attended church? Not while I was at Illugastadir…Perhaps things would have been different if Natan had let me go to church at Tjörn. I might have made friends there. I might have met a family to turn to when it all became twisted…But he didn’t let me go, and there was no other friend, no light to head towards in that wintered landscape.
“Admit it. You want this too, Agnes.”
At that point…I saw what Fridrik held in his hands. It was a hammer and a knife.
What do I remember? I didn’t believe him. I went back to my bed on the floor of the cowshed, suddenly weary. I wanted nothing to do with him. What happened?
I am crying and my mouth is open and filled with something, it is choking me and I spit it out. On the ground is a stone, and I look back at Margrét, and see that she did not notice. “The stone was in my mouth,” I say.